Everything I learned attending The Fast Company Innovation Festival 2016
New York City hosted the second Fast Company Innovation Festival between 1 and 4 November. Under the theme #FindYourMission, it presented a unique and inspiring program of keynotes, discussion panels, interviews and fast tracks.
The festival has distilled my understanding that entrepreneurs need to stay in a state of permanent beta. It is a mindset that ensures continuous agitation, encourages a spirit of discovery and keeps a company at the cutting edge of trends and innovation.
And this attitude is critical. Change is like a wildfire across virtually every sector in virtually every region ─ challenging all industries to keep up. Yet this change also brings unprecedented opportunities for those contrarians living the disruption and embracing radical change ─ with a sense of curiosity, rebellion and restlessness.
- Bringing more definition to this understanding, I will sum up the New York Festival in three themes: Values, Design Thinking and Experiences
According to start-up First Look Media, consumers and audiences are hungry for authenticity. Strategic decisions simply based on data are not always accurate and precise ─ they lack the humanity that is now needed to engage effectively.
A fast track with public radio station WNYC shared the message that engaging audiences needs to go further than traditional broadcasting. By shifting the focus to (no longer passive) audiences ─ through one to one conversations via chatbots ─ we can forge relationships. It builds human character into brands, products, causes and services. Individuals need and want to be listened to and acknowledged ─ and new tech helps to meet these basic social needs.
Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, stated that companies that are coupled to the right values can have a positive impact on societies. He argues that companies can be a force for good ─ but only if leaders feel and demonstrate a responsibility that goes beyond shareholders.
Mauro Porcini (Chief Design Officer at the PepsiCo’s NYC headquarters) said that people are now searching for authenticity, consistency and truth: “they don´t buy products anymore, they search for holistic solutions and authentic stories; we have to earn the right of becoming talkable brands”. According to Porcini, the story of a successful brand is the story of authenticity.
Melinda Gates (co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and Regine Dugan (Head of Facebook’s Building 8) took part in a conversation on gender equality in technology companies. This debate was framed by the fact that, while more and more women are graduating in medicine and law, fewer are graduating in computer science.
It seems that perspectives may have a role to play in eliminating this bias: The University of California at Berkeley renamed an introductory computer science degree in 2014, choosing Joy and Beauty of Computing to replace the old title of Introduction to Symbolic Programming. It is a decision that has seen more women than men taking the course for the first time.
Cultural perspectives and values are also important. Dugan recalled working at Facebook on an Artificial Intelligence task group: she said that there were few women in the discussion, but one woman came up with an entirely different viewpoint. Her solutions focused on how technology affected people’s lives, whilst the men wanted to do something with drones!
Building on the power of perspective, a workshop at strategy and design practice Sub Rosa explored applied empathy in problem solving. According to Michael Ventura, it´s founder & CEO they work on the principle that empathy can elevate the creative process. They begin by understanding the realities and ambitions of participants in each interaction. Driven by empathy, brand experiences are built through meaningful conversations, behaviors, relationships and memories. This helps to solve challenges and unlock opportunities for clients and communities. It makes total sense to me, as behaving as a social brand demands that companies develop the same empathy skills as humans ─ to foster understanding and strengthen bonds.
As stated by Seth Godin in a recent post, empathy is a bridge.
I believe that the lines between values and design are blurring. To me, values should guide design. Or to put it another way, design thinking is driven by human values.
In a fast track at experience design company Co:Collective, I heard that innovation opportunities must be found outside the current core business ─ in a place they call the White Space. By trying to find innovation within the core business, some companies fall into the trap of staying inside their comfort zone. Other companies try to ‘buy’ innovation through acquisitions and mergers ─ but this has nothing to do with real innovation. Rather, it’s just a desperate behavior of matching the figures and financial architecture.
That is why identifying and capitalizing on the White Space is the key in the innovative process. Truly innovative companies understand that they have a mission in the world they want to accomplish. Co:Collective calls this mission the Quest. A good Quest inspires clients and employees to join in solving a particular problem. The Red Bull Quest is ‘to help all us live our lives to the absolute extreme’; the Tesla Quest is ‘accelerating the electric economy of the future’. Good Quests are generous and broad enough to open up new markets.
Amazon is another great example of a company that finds innovation in the White Space. CEO Jeff Bezos generate awareness by simply announcing to the media that Amazon is going to do something amazing ─ not by running advertising. As he says, “advertising is a tax you pay for a lack of innovation”.
A discussion panel on design thinking took place at the NBBJ offices in Manhattan. NBBJ is a company that aims to, “design spaces that enable the pursuit of success, wellness and joy”. Fast Company recently named NBBJ as One of World´s Top 10 Most Innovative Architecture Companies
The discussion was informed by the umbrella concept of Using Data to Design More Human–Centered Spaces. Once again, it underlined the understanding that humanity as a value should be at the center of design thinking. Discussion touched on the fact that more data has been created in the past two years than in the entire history of the human race ─ astonishing, right?
On a global scale, this data should help us make sense of the parts of the earth that are the hardest to reach. Data should help us to understand the implications of population migrations, industrialization and even climate change in order to design human-centered solutions.
The panelists came at the topic from three different angles:
- Health: the proliferation and ease of access to data is fostering a paradigm shift in healthcare delivery around the world.
- Work: technology is driving profound shifts in the nature of work and its implications. Despite these changes, business is still about people.
- City: around the world municipalities are producing and harnessing data to make cities smarter and more livable, workable and sustainable. This data is produced by the IoT, upcoming driverless cars, streetlights that spot crimes and test for air pollution, etc.
On Friday the 4th, I headed to the Frog Design offices in Brooklyn to attend a workshop about ‘Driving Change through Strategies for Envisioning the Future’. As everyone knows, Frog is an iconic and legendary global design and strategic firm. As they claim, “Frog partners with clients to anticipate the future, evolve organizations and advance in human experience”.
Frog was set up in 1969 and has built an amazing legacy. Back in 1984, for example, it worked with Apple, designing language first embodied by the Apple IIc system ─ recognized by Time Magazine as Design of the Year. Visiting such an iconic design house was a magical experience for me.
After a brief keynote on the Frog culture and their design mind procedure, we had the chance to play the role of froggers in an exciting workshop on futurecasting.
Futurecasting is a growth strategy that envisions opportunities in the light of alternate futures in order to develop flexible business road maps. The goal was to define disruptive experiences in the auto and airlines industries.
Envisioning those future experiences relies on technologies, but putting humans first resulted in some astonishing possibilities. Specifically, we worked on a scenario around a niche airline company focused on short-haul flights. Could you imagine a future where flights become social ecosystems? Where the actual flight is a means of connecting people on the same plane? The whole experience asked us to foresee the human experience, driven by the question ─ What if?
Experiences matter more than things. This was one of the key messages at a fast track session at the cool Percolate offices in NYC’s SOHO district. Percolate is a web and mobile software platform that manages all marketing activities in one place.
The title track was really teasing and attractive: Why Marketers Should Think More Like Engineers. It was a cocktail hour and the CEO, Noah Brier, discussed why marketers need to think like systems architects for their brands, focusing on how to deliver consistent and compelling brand experiences at scale. According to Brier, “nobody reads ads; people read what interests them…and sometimes it´s an ad”.
The concept of experience was a common denominator in many of the sessions:
- Sub Rosa shared a case study with their client GE Healthcare on applying empathy during the creative process. The initiative was called ‘For Women by Women’ that aimed to offer a whole new experience for women being screened in hospitals.
- PepsiCo’s CDO stated that people don´t by products anymore, but meaningful experiences. As marketers and branding professionals, we have to design upfront the meaning of those experiences ─ and meaning is key in designing innovation.
- The ultimate Co:Collective goal is to build experiences either from scratch or reinventing the existing ones to bring back competitiveness to brands. In fact, they define themselves as a storydoing company, whose quest is to help the bold truly do. In a funny workshop all the attendees participated in an exercise to reinvent the shopping experience at Macy´s.
- Frog Design’s Experience Strategy choreographs interactions between people and a brand’s products and services by assessing the quality of existing experiences, envisioning future opportunities, then planning and managing the deployment of a unified vision.
And talking about amazing experiences, I don´t want to forget the last fast track session I attended before flying back to Spain.
It took place at Brooklyn Navy Yard and was hosted by 1776 , a community of startups and innovators. They aim to solve the world’s biggest challenges in heavily regulated sectors such as education, energy, health and smart cities.
Rachel Haot, managing director of 1776, guided us through their magical innovation space revived from an abandoned military industrial building. This space – still under construction – enjoys stunning waterfront views in an industrial loft, with a mix of conventional desks and comfortable lounge areas. Every week, 1776 will host events that support their community, including an Innovator Speaker Series, Happy Hour and collaborative events with partners such as Fast Company and tech: NYC.
Food for Thought – #FCNY16
Everything I’ve described is great food for thought. Inspiration and creativity now come from different sources and sectors and it’s clear that we no longer live in niche disciplines. Everything is converging ─ design, creativity, technology, entrepreneurship ─ to transform experiences in areas such as Healthcare, energy and Smart Cities.
It´s really satisfying to note that all of this change is driven by human values. Welcome to the human renaissance in the digital economy. In this new paradigm, our mission is to imagine future scenarios ─ working hard to embed people’s daily lives as a key value to be both served and shared.
By Ángel González